Thomas Gold Appleton (March 31, 1812-April 17, 1884) wrote that in his day, “forms of luxury and self-indulgence displace the severe austerities of our fathers; but under it all still lives the New England conscience.”

His words apply to his own career as an essayist, amateur artist and poet, collector and patron of the arts, and a celebrated Boston character or “wit.” He is remembered chiefly for his generous support of the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts.

In 1857 Appleton settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to his sister Fanny Longfellow and her family. Now 45, he admitted, “I have the temperament of genius without the genius.” Those who knew him well, however, thought he did possess a kind of genius: a gift for what his secretary and biographer, Susan Hale, called “the difficult art of generous living.” He enjoyed making people happy and devoted much of his fortune to giving others a good time.

A lifelong bachelor, he became the center of the extended Appleton family, keeping in close contact with his nieces, nephews, and the children of his father’s second marriage. His gifts to the Longfellow children included a trip to Europe and an ocean-going yacht. In his later years virtually adopted his improvident half-brother, Nathan Appleton Jr.

Appleton was known in Boston society as a sympathetic friend, a convivial host, and a celebrated wit. Oscar Wilde quoted his most well-known bon mot, “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,” in his play A Woman of No Importance, 1893.

Like Wilde, Appleton was said to have made conversation a work of art. Charles Eliot Norton described him as “a true bon-vivant, intellectually and well as physically.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “king of clubs.” Susan Hale thought his humor concealed a “shy and sensitive” nature: “For fear of being laughed at, he said and did things to turn the laugh upon him, that he might laugh himself with the others.”

He was finally taken ill while all alone in New York City, and the Longfellows were telegraphed for. When one of his relatives came to him he spoke of his malady in a stoically humorous manner; and his last words were when he was dying: “How interesting this all is!”

“Step, step, step, sings the whip of the sky:
“Hurry up, move along, you can if you try!”

This guy is fascinating! I had never heard of him before!

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Updated: January 2018

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